Take a quick look at the Gophers men’s basketball schedule in November and early December — and the first thing that jumps out at you will probably be the number of high-major opponents: seven.
Look closer at those opponents, the nonconference foes specifically, and you’ll see bottom-half teams from the SEC (Texas A&M), ACC (Boston College) and Big 12 (Oklahoma State) losing to the Big West, Horizon League and Conference USA already this season.
Washington, a Pac-12 contender and preseason ranked team, got humbled in a 22-point loss at Auburn.
Several of these major conference opponents suddenly look vulnerable. It’s an opportunity for a team like Minnesota to show how much it has improved from last season and build some confidence before Big Ten play.
If the Gophers (2-0) want to be considered in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth, it starts with taking care of business Sunday night against Texas A&M to open the Vancouver Showcase — and carrying that momentum over to Tuesday and Wednesday against Santa Clara and Washington.
“There’s a chance for us to go put the NCAA [tournament] on notice,” senior guard Dupree McBrayer said. “We’re a sleeper pick everywhere. We want that, but we also want everybody to feel that we’re on the rise.”
The U’s next five opponents had a combined record of 6-7 as of Friday. Texas A&M suffered arguably the worst loss from that group on Nov. 9 against UC Irvine.
The Aggies return only one starter from the team that reached the Sweet 16 last season. They were predicted to finish 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC preseason poll. The lone bright spot so far was hanging with No. 3 Gonzaga in the first half of a loss on Thursday. That was without senior starting guard Admon Gilder, who is out indefinitely with an undisclosed health issue.
“Texas A&M will be one of the more athletic teams we’ll play,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “Difficult game for them to go into Gonzaga. I thought they were pretty good early, and then Gonzaga is just a terrific team at home. So I’m sure they’ll be hungry. It’s good for us. We’re excited about it.”
It might be hard for Minnesota’s players not to look ahead to Wednesday’s game against Washington, which was ranked No. 25 in the preseason poll. The Huskies return all five starters from a 21-win team and are expected to challenge Oregon for the Pac 12 title.
Beating Washington would be the biggest nonconference win for the Gophers this season — by far. The Nov. 26 game at Boston College lost some luster when the Eagles barely beat St. Francis and got upset by IUPUI to open the season.
Minnesota’s Nov. 30 game against Oklahoma State in the U.S. Bank Stadium Classic is the featured matchup in the warmup event for the Final Four in April. But the Cowboys were ranked last in the Big 12 preseason poll released last month. So nobody was surprised when they lost to Charlotte recently.
The Big Ten season gets going early again, Dec. 2 at Ohio State and Dec. 5 against Nebraska, which will be the first time the Gophers play at home in six games. The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers are a combined 6-0 this year, which is currently three times more wins than the last four opponents on Minnesota’s nonconference schedule in December.
The quality-win opportunities might be slim, but Pitino’s team passed its first test in a 78-69 win Monday against Utah. All-Big Ten senior Jordan Murphy had 17 rebounds, and freshmen Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu combined for 32 points.
The Gophers are anxious to find out how well they can play against other Power Five opponents — no matter how good those teams are projected to be.
“It’s going to be mentally tough for us,” Murphy said. “Not having the [home] crowd to back us, but it’s something all teams are going to have to go through. We have some tough games ahead of us; hopefully we can keep our young guys engaged.”